Tripoli – The red flames illuminate a night propped up by stars. A government fighter glued to a heavy machine gun on the back of an off road vehicle shoots short intermittent bursts towards the positions of General Khalifa Haftar. A few kilometers further back, life in the center of Tripoli moves along in a chaotic manner, as if the war was far away.
The long road from the suburb of Yarmuk is interrupted by a shipping crate and a mound of earth, which a bulldozer was reinforcing as the sun was setting. On the right hand side a small abandoned building is in an optimal position for pounding enemy lines. In the absolute darkness we climb up stairs together with the breathless fighters, who are transporting heavy cases of ammunition. On the flat roof which overlooks half of the district, Tripoli defenders arrive from Misrata, Spartan Libya, and have placed down a Duska, without a tripod, fitting it onto the parapet.
The ones keeping their heads down are the journalists, in contrast to the fighters, who display no issues in taking aim and shooting tremendous broadsides that are lost in the dark. The roof is a type of armoury where they prepare ammunition tapes using the light of a mobile phone in the hope of not being seen by the Haftar snipers. A Misrata commander, who has been living on the front lines for weeks, indicates to the young machine gunner who is shooting and to areas of a sequence of hits which illuminate the red roof turning it into a perfect target.
One month after the beginning of the battle in Tripoli, the situation on the ground has come to a dramatic halt. In the capital there has been losses and regaining of position, but the line has changed very little. The recognised ONU government of Fayez al Serraj has failed to push back Haftar’s troops. And the Cirenaica General does not have the ability to go into the city and get to the center, as he had announced at the beginning of Ramadan, the month of Islamic fasting that began on the 6th of May. The government may be able to take the international airport which has been in disuse since 2014, but Tripoli remains besieged.
In all this chaos there are some unique characters, who one meets only during war; Mohammed is still hobbled from a bullet which struck his hip. He is a soldier of great courage found in Misrata along the first line, camouflaged and with crutches. Courageous and wiry he takes us into the heart of the battle in Ein Zara, a district of Tripoli where the hardest fighting has broken out. We give him a new crutch because the old one was lost who knows where, after hours of fighting.
The captain Rafat prefers jeans to a uniform with ranks on the shoulder pads. Italians had trained him in Cassino. When he meets us he goes out of his way to escort us along the front, in recognition of the friendship between our two countries.
The most colourful is Nidal, a tall black man who looked like a hobo, with a New York cap and a bandage slung over his neck for a wound on his arm. He does not care, driving with one hand what remains of a military jeep gnawed by bullets and shrapnel. It seems to be falling to pieces, but in reality it still travelled fast with a recoil-free cannon mounted on the back. Completely exposed, without any protection, he has a crew that seems serenely devoted to death. The “taxi” was perfect for travelling to the front.
You are made to face the war when bringing the injured to field infirmary close to the front line. The fighters in blue camouflage hit in the head, that don’t understand anything anymore. The young boy with guts hanging out and already dead. One of Fezzan’s African youths with a piece of a rocket ten centimeters in diameter lodged in his leg. He gives himself courage with his fellow soldiers by repeating the words Allah o akbar, God is great.
After a month of war for the conquest of Tripoli there is now a situation similar to the scenario in Syria at Italy’s front door, which risks dragging on longer without winners or losers.